This week, Nature published a short Correspondence from Giovanni Strona, a biologist “mainly interested in theoretical ecology”, with a positively shocking revelation: taxonomists are selling the naming rights to new species.
This week, Nature published a short Correspondence from Giovanni Strona, a biologist “mainly interested in theoretical ecology”, with a positively shocking revelation: taxonomists are selling the naming rights to new species.
When taxonomists discuss gender, they’re usually debating whether the etymological root of a species name is the same gender as the root of its genus, and whether that species name should end with –i, –a, or perhaps –us. While debating ancient Latin grammar may be a noble, if occasionally dull, pursuit, there’s a more important discussion on gender in taxonomy that we need to be having; why women continue to be underrepresented in our discipline.
I’ve been somewhat aware of the gender disparity in taxonomy for a while—I’ve casually noticed how few women are currently employed in natural history collections or as professors of taxonomy & systematics at universities, and that there are relatively few women attending taxonomic meetings, particularly outside of students and post-doc positions—but the issue burst into my consciousness like a slap to the face recently as the journal ZooKeys celebrated their 500th issue.
As a part of the celebration, ZooKeys created a series of Top 10 posters that they shared on social media, recognizing the editors, reviewers, and authors who have helped the journal become one of the most important venues for zoological taxonomy over the last 7 years. Check them out:
Of the 35 people being recognized for their contributions to publishing & the taxonomic process, in categories that are highly regarded and influential in hiring & promotion decisions, only 1 is a woman. I doubt ZooKeys could have created a starker depiction of gender disparity in taxonomy had they tried.
What’s going on here? How can only 1 woman be included in these lists? Hoping that it was some random fluke, I started looking around for more information on gender diversity in the taxonomic community, and well, it didn’t get better.
First, I looked at the editorial board & section editors for ZooKeys, and found only 1 woman sat on the editorial board, out of 15 members (6.7%), while only 37 of the 265 section editors were women (14%). When I compared this to Zootaxa, the other major publisher of zoological taxonomy, I found the exact same ratio among section editors, 14% (32/225). Systematic Biology? A slightly better 15 for 80 (19%), while Systematic Entomology is 3 for 18 (17%) and Cladistics is only 2 for 20 (10%). Even the small biodiversity journal for which I’m the technical editor only has 2 female editors out of 15 (13%). Meanwhile, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the governing body that sets the rules for naming animals and adjudicates disputes over names, currently has 23 male commissioners, and only 4 women (15%).
Compare this to ecology, where Timothée Poisot reports 24% of editors for the more than a dozen journals he’s looked at are women, while Cho et al. (2014) found editorial boards in other biological fields to be roughly 22% women in 2013 (up from ~8% in 1990). Clearly 22-24% is a far cry from parity, but it’s still 10% higher than it is in taxonomy.
But is this indicative of the true diversity of taxonomists? It’s hard to say. In 2010, the Canadian Expert Panel on Biodiversity Science surveyed taxonomists in Canada, and reported that 139 of their 432 survey respondents identified as women (30%). Ironically, the panel itself only included 3 women (out of 14; 21%), and only 2 women reviewers (out of 12; 17%), failing to accurately reflect the community it was attempting to assess. Meanwhile, the UK’s House of Lords Science and Technology committee on Taxonomy & Systematics (2008) reported only 143 of 861 UK taxonomists were women (17%), but while there was much discussion over the potential decline in total numbers of taxonomists, there was none regarding gender inequality.
Looking more broadly, 42% of science & engineering PhDs were awarded to women in 2013, and 28% of applicants to the NSF Division of Environmental Biology (the major funding source for ecology, evolutionary biology and taxonomy/systematics in the USA) in 2014 were women, so it’s not unreasonable to assume the professional taxonomic community is at least 25% women, and hopefully much higher. Again, 25% is a long ways from equality, but it still suggests there is a definite misrepresentation of diversity on the editorial committees of taxonomic journals.
So why does it matter if editorial boards and reviewer pools aren’t representative of the community, whether it be in terms of gender or ethnicity (another important discussion the taxonomic community should be having)? Well, for one, keeping taxonomic publishing an Old Boys Club is more likely to result in situations like that which recently occurred at PLoS ONE, with biased, sexist, and misogynistic attitudes influencing not only the publication of research, but by extension, the career advancement (or lack thereof) for taxonomists based solely on their gender. Now, I’m not saying that the editors and reviewers for ZooKeys & Zootaxa are explicitly engaging in biased behaviour, but recent research has shown the implicit biases of academia towards women, particularly in publishing, and there’s no reason to assume taxonomy is immune to these factors.
But there’s also the fact that female early career taxonomists may look at the editorial boards of these journals, or see posters of those being recognized and praised for their contributions, and not see anyone that looks like them in a position of power. Having role models with whom one can identify with is an important influencer, and after 250 years of old white dudes at the helm, it’s unfortunately not difficult to see why gender diversity in taxonomy is where it is.
So where do we go from here? How can we encourage more women to pursue a career in taxonomy and bring their passion for the natural world along with them? Well, for starters, we should be inviting more women to become editors for our journals, but we also need to start talking about gender equality in taxonomy, and our failings therein, more openly. The statistics on women in taxonomy from the Canadian Expert Panel on Biodiversity Science weren’t mentioned at all in the main body of the report, but were instead relegated to the appendices. Worse, the 2010 UK Taxonomy & Systematics Review didn’t include data on gender diversity in taxonomy, instead focusing on funding and age demographics; perhaps illustratively they titled the demographics section “Current Manpower and Trends”.
Ignorance of gender disparity in taxonomy is no longer acceptable; there is no excuse for convening a panel discussion on “The Future of Diptera Taxonomy & Systematics” at an international meeting and only inviting male panelists. As a community, we need to change the way that we go about our work so anyone with an interest in biodiversity feels welcome and able to contribute to our collective knowledge of Earth’s species. Just as we are compelled to debate the etymology of a dead language, we must be equally compelled to create a vibrant taxonomic future based on equality and diversity.
UPDATE (12:02p 05/07/15): Ross Mounce pointed me to a paper that was just published this week that examines the role of women in botanical taxonomy, and they present data that is equally bad to my numbers above. Of the nearly 625,000 plant species described over the last 260 years, a paltry 2.8% were described by women. Additionally, only 12% of authors in botanical taxonomic papers were women. Read the paper in its entirety in the journal Taxon.
Cho A.H., Carrie E. Schuman, Jennifer M. Adler, Oscar Gonzalez, Sarah J. Graves, Jana R. Huebner, D. Blaine Marchant, Sami W. Rifai, Irina Skinner & Emilio M. Bruna & (2014). Women are underrepresented on the editorial boards of journals in environmental biology and natural resource management, PeerJ, 2 e542. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.542
For the biodiversity data scientists reading this, a challenge: what proportion of authors in taxonomic papers are women, are they more likely to be first author, last author, or somewhere in the middle, and what proportion of taxa have been described by women? I think these statistics should be relatively easy to figure out, especially with services like BioStor & BioNames, and will help us better understand gender diversity in taxonomy, both historically and as we move towards the future. And perhaps consider publishing your results in the Biodiversity Data Journal, which has editorial gender issues of its own (editorial board: 1/14 (7%); section editors: 28/161 (17%)).
The Qualifying Exam.
Its mere mention is enough to make a grad student break out in a cold sweat. At least it had that effect on me, up until I successfully completed mine.
This afternoon the Natural History Museum in London, UK posted a pair of permanent curatorships at their insect collection, one for the Coleoptera collection, and the other for the Odonata and Small Orders collection. Seeing how rarely these types of jobs open up, there has been considerable buzz on Twitter, with many awesome people exclaiming how great it’d be to get a job like that at one of the premiere insect collections on the planet, but too bad they don’t have all the qualifications so they wouldn’t stand a chance and thus won’t be applying.
This is something I’ve seen far too frequently during my time in academia: people selling themselves, their work and their qualifications short, and not bothering to apply for positions they find interesting because they see invisible barriers they assume will prevent them from getting the job. I’ve seen undergrads do it, I’ve seen MSc students do it, I’ve seen PhD students do it, and I’ve seen Post-docs do it, so I figured I’d write down my observations & thoughts on what holds people back from applying for jobs, and why it shouldn’t.
Journal clubs are common in many labs/departments, with students meeting with post-docs and advisors to discuss the latest and (sometimes maybe-not-so-) greatest research being published in their field of study. These journal clubs not only help students learn new techniques and concepts, but also teach them how to critically examine and review an academic paper, an important skill for evaluating new research.
Unfortunately for those of us who work in smaller labs without many other grad students or senior researchers, we don’t get the opportunity to have these discussions very regularly (if at all). While I took a few course-based colloquia during my MSc, I would love to take part in a journal club that lasts more than a semester. When I first joined Twitter, I floated the idea of a Twitter-based taxonomy journal club, but never really got much of a response at the time (largely due to my small follower list I suspect).
Then earlier this week Rafael Maia (a PhD candidate at the University of Akron) confessed on Twitter that he cyber-stalks journal clubs in other labs and universities, and so I suggested perhaps we start our own journal club via social media! It wasn’t long before grad students from other institutions expressed an interest, and so I figured I’d get the ball rolling and start fleshing out some of the ideas that were thrown around on Twitter about how we can make this happen!
It’s been the kind of week where stress levels have been on the rise and I’ve asked myself more than once why I’m killing myself over a million and one things instead of drinking beer and relaxing on a patio somewhere.
Finding the energy and drive to keep pushing forward, writing and making progress even when faced with what seem to be insurmountable obstacles is tough, but it helps to stop, take a breath, and look up from the dark pit of deadlines from time to time and just ogle over a fly or two to remind myself why I love what I do.
In case you find yourself in a similar position going into the weekend, here are a couple of shiny flies which I hope will cheer up your day like they did mine.
This morning I was reading a newly published paper that I found intriguing, not only for its content1 but also for who it cited — sort of.
Among the regular cadre of peer-reviewed journal articles supporting the author’s findings were two blog posts by University of Glasgow professor Roderic Page. Rod is a major proponent for digitizing and linking biodiversity literature with all aspects of a species’ pixel-trail across the internet, so I was excited to see his blog being “formally” recognized. As I finished reading the paper and reached the References section, I skimmed through to see how a blog citation might be formatted. Much to my dismay, after breezing through the L’s, M’s, and N’s I found myself within the R’s, with nary a Page in sight.
Despite having directly referenced Rod’s work on three separate occasions, the authors failed to formally acknowledge his contributions to the field. I may still be a little wet behind the ears in this whole academic publishing game, but I suspect that if someone didn’t properly cite a Nature paper, they’d be quickly reprimanded by the editor of the journal they submitted to and be told to include the citation or face rejection.
I’ve been thinking about this situation all day, and I can’t come up with a reason why the author’s didn’t include a proper citation, other than the continuing bias against blogging (and social media in general) among the scientific community. Certainly there are those in the scientific community who realize the potential of social media and blogging in science2, but in large part it seems the message is being ignored because of prejudices regarding the medium in which it’s published.
“One of the usual reasons given for not citing blog posts is that they are not peer-reviewed. Which is not true. First, if the post contained errors, readers would point them out in the comments. That is the first layer of peer review. Then, the authors of the manuscript found and read a blog post, evaluated its accuracy and relevance and CHOSE to use it as a reference. That is the second layer of peer-review. Then, the people who review the manuscript will also check the references and, if there is a problem with the cited blog post, they will point this out to the editor. This is the third layer of peer-review. How much more peer-review can one ask for?”
There’s also plenty of evidence that the content being produced by today’s bloggers, tweeters and G-plussers is slowly earning the attention of the academic community. Kate Clancy, a tenure-track anthropologist who blogs at Context and Variation, had someone skim one of her blog posts and intellectually plagiarize her ideas by publishing them in a traditional journal, further evidence that “attention” doesn’t necessarily mean “respect”. Just this week Eric Michael Johnson, a science history PhD student, wrote an incredible article summarizing the arguments between kin vs group selectionists and published it on his blog, The Primate Diaries; it has since been recommended by E.O. Wilson himself, via his Facebook fanpage no less! And of course there’s Rod’s work which was included in the paper in question, even if it was improperly cited, and which started this entire digression.
So if the quality of content published on blogs is of interest, well supported and being recognized by our peers, why do we still see this disconnect between traditional literature and social media when it comes to proper credit? I think the social media movement4 is so new, seemingly free of traditional rules & roles and so quickly evolving that many academics have yet to take the time to explore its potential before dismissing it as a waste of time best reserved for celebrities and teenagers. Frankly, with the ever increasing pressure to publish, find funding and shoulder more responsibilities within academic circles, I can’t say I totally blame them. But just like those in academia have (mostly) accepted and embraced other technologies, I’m confident that social media, including blogging, will find its place among the scientific community and will revolutionize the ways we go about doing, discussing and disseminating scientific research. Certainly it will be an uphill battle for those who aspire to change the way this new technology is perceived and credited within the academic community, but ultimately I think it’s in all our best interest to push the boundaries!
Perhaps Rod Page summarized this entire post in a single tweet:
.@bioinfocus I suspect because blogs don’t fit into the “normal” landscape of publishing – yet
— Roderic Page (@rdmpage) July 10, 2012
1- Which I won’t comment on here for a variety of paranoid political reasons, but I would still highly recommend you read the paper.
2- I’m talking about you, the people (person?) who took the time to read this blog post; thank you!
3- Nicknamed The Blogfather among the ScienceOnline community, he also appears to have the distinction of having the first blog post cited by a technical scientific article. Fitting.
4- Which is exactly how I see it. Much like the cladistic wars of the 1980s and the Darwinian debate 100 years before that, it’s only a matter of time until social media is embraced by the scientific & academic communities.
You may have noticed that this blog has been rather quiet lately. Too quiet… My apologies for that, as there’s been a lot of cool science going on in my absence! I hope to get caught up on some of the delightful Diptera discoveries that have been published lately, not to mention all sorts of other fun stories, but for now they’ll have to wait for another day.
Why have I been neglecting the blog as of late? In January I was offered the opportunity to build and teach a Horticultural Integrative Pest Management and Plant Health course for Mohawk College in Hamilton, and I saw it as an excellent chance to expand my CV and gain valuable teaching experience (also make some money, ’cause that’s pretty important). I knew from the outset that I was in for a challenge; I was hired less than 2 weeks before the course began; my combined knowledge of IPM, botany and horticulture amounted to 1 university IPM course and some extremely black thumbs; and oh yeah, I’ve never constructed and taught a course before! Nevertheless, I took the rough curriculum the college provided and set out to make my mark on the horticulture class of 2012.
I expected this course to be as much a learning exercise for myself as it would be for my students, and it certainly lived up to expectations. Here are a few things I learned while teaching.
1) Lesson preparation will take longer than you anticipate
Before accepting the position I tried to guess how much time I would need to devote to the different projects/duties I have on the go:
You probably guessed that those 6 hours/week of blogging didn’t happen, with much of that time being spent on lecture preparation. The amount of time needed to prepare lectures from scratch really blew me away, and I usually ended up spending at least one day on the weekend plus all day Monday & Tuesday getting ready for my 5 hour lecture on Wednesday. Because IPM isn’t my area of expertise, a lot of my time was spent on background research, getting up to speed on topics before trying to teach it back to my students. Theoretically that prep time would go down if I was teaching something I was more familiar with (i.e. taxonomy or general insect diversity), but the decrease probably wouldn’t be that dramatic. I must admit that I learned and retained more having to teach these topics than I did as a student sitting through class…
2) Five hour lectures require creativity (and a good night’s sleep)
A 5 hour class is not an ideal learning environment, especially for a group of students who would much prefer to be outside! In order to try and retain their attention, I broke my class into 4 segments with short breaks in between: 1 hour of review & quiz covering the previous week’s work, 45 minute lecture on Topic A, 1 hour lecture on Topic B, and 1.5 hour pest identification lab. I found this worked pretty well, with the students still paying attention through most of the classes, and only occasionally head bobbing (which is pretty hilarious to see from the front of the room, albeit a little disheartening).
Trying to keep the students engaged for each of these lessons required a little more work. I found YouTube to be invaluable, providing a lot of great resources to help illustrate my points (and give me a chance to grab a sip of water). If you’re interested, I’ve created a playlist of all the videos I included (or promoted) in my lectures; 72 clips in all. Some of them might seem a little odd out of context, but they made sense (mostly). Of all the videos I showed, I think I got the largest reaction out of the early DDT propaganda videos; seems the students didn’t like the idea of eating their cereal with a helping of insecticide…
I tried to draw on my natural history & pop culture knowledge to draw the students into the topics. Whether it was using Jacob from the Twilight series to introduce the concept of the “silver bullet” (heh) or using movie plots to explain the differences between invasive species control tactics (Containment = Outbreak; Control = Night of the Living Dead; Eradication = Independence Day), by bringing pop culture references into the lecture I could usually get the students to show signs of life. My students also seemed to enjoy parasititism, so anytime I could find a way to work a parasite into a topic I did.
Also, it seems giving a 5 hour lecture is physically exhausting! I’m not sure whether it was the standing/pacing or the mental marathon to stay ahead of the students, but I was pretty wiped each afternoon following my class. Make sure to eat your Wheaties prior to teaching, and have something to drink nearby!
3) Blog posts are a great way to keep students engaged outside of the classroom
Every week I assigned my students a blog post to read, and rewarded those that read it with a bonus question on the next week’s quiz. It was a great way to expose the students to topics and stories that tied back to our lectures but which weren’t necessarily about IPM. Judging by how many students got the bonus question correct each week I think they enjoyed the posts as well. Here are the posts I assigned over the semester (they’re all worth a read, believe me):
4) Seeing a student make a breakthrough makes all the hard work worthwhile!
It’s amazingly rewarding when a student asks a question that shows they’re engaged and curious about a topic. Case in point, while discussing gypsy moths (Lymantria dispar) I noted that adult females don’t fly, instead waiting for males to come to them. Having discussed the Fall Cankerworm1 a few minutes earlier, one of my students eagerly asked why female gypsy moths invest energy in developing wings which they never use2? Suffice to say I could hardly answer because I was geeking out over the question! Not only was she clearly connecting the dots between ideas, but she was applying advanced ecological & evolutionary concepts to something she’d only just been introduced to! SO AWESOME. It was these sort of moments that made every second I spent on lecture preparation worthwhile!
Of all the things I learned over the course of the semester, the most important was that I really enjoy teaching! I’ve had some experience with teaching before3, but never to this degree. There are certainly some areas of my teaching that I’d like to improve on moving forward, but overall the semester was a success, and my students walked away happy (or so they tell me at least). This course was a nice confirmation that I’m heading down the correct career path, and I’m already excited to give it another shot in the future.
1 – Female Fall Cankerworms are also flightless, but have wings that are reduced to tiny little stubs.
2 – This is almost an exact quote, she actually said “invest energy”. It blew my mind in a good way!
3 – I’ve given several guest lectures at the University of Guelph and was a teacher’s assistant on an entomology field course.
Over the past 250 years, hundreds of thousands of flies have been described and given names by taxonomists from around the world. Many of these names have stood the test of time and are still in use today (the common house fly Musca domestica was named by Carl Linneaus in 1758, for example), but many names did not make the cut; sometimes because the species they were assigned to already had names from earlier scientists, sometimes because the name was being used for another animal, and sometimes because we gained a better understanding for how species are related and moved them to a new branch on the tree of life. These synonymous names remain important to us though, and can’t just be discarded or forgotten about, as sometimes they get a second chance at fame following the discovery of new specimens or new characters! Managing all of these names, searching for obscure papers published at any point in the last 250 years and knowing every little detail about a species’ scientific heritage is what keeps taxonomists busy from day to day. Taxonomists are modern day treasure hunters, following maps laid out by our taxonomic forefathers and searching for hidden gems in new & undescribed species.
Traditionally, species names have been tracked in small batches during the course of taxonomic revisions, being updated once a generation or two if we’re lucky. For decades, taxonomy has been underfunded, understaffed and unappreciated, meaning even these small revisions are being done less and less frequently, and by fewer people each generation. This has lead to a situation that has been termed the Taxonomic Impediment. Put simply, there are too many unknown species and not enough time, money or scientists to describe them, with many species disappearing before we even realized they were there.
In the internet age, taxonomists can communicate, collaborate, and compile their expertise into larger ideas and bigger projects. By working together, taxonomists today have begun consolidating tools in open access resources available to the community at large, and more importantly, the public. One such resource is Systema Dipterorum, a clearing house for fly names and taxonomic information. This library of fly taxonomy has been an ongoing project for the past 20 years, originally spearheaded by Dr. F. Christian Thompson, a veteran fly taxonomist and one of the world’s foremost experts on flower flies (Syrphidae). With the help of dipterists from around the world, and the support of Dr. Thomas Pape and the Natural History Museum of Denmark where the online database has been stored for the past few years, this database of fly names has grown to include more than 160,000 species, for which 250,000 different names have been found, recorded and made available in the database (as reported in FlyTimes Issue 46, 2011), along with authors and citations for when those names were first published.
Systema Dipterorum is a shining example of what a taxonomic community can accomplish, even with the limited financial resources provided to it. Other groups have similar resources (see AntWeb.org for the photographic equivalent for Formicidae) but I regard the Diptera community’s combined efforts as one of the greatest accumulations of taxonomic information anywhere. I use this database weekly during the course of my own taxonomic revisions, but I also consult it for my personal endeavors in order to use the most accurate names in my photography and scientific communication, as well as to satisfy my curiosity.
I also use the database to explore the works of other dipterists, to learn what they are passionate about, and to better understand the work being undertaken around the world. To that regard, I visited diptera.org on February 16 to learn more about the work of Australian dipterist Don Colless, who recently passed away. Instead of a world-leading database, I found this:
What made this unsettling discovery even more surprising was Dr. Thompson’s recent commitment to developing the database despite a recent funding cut! Along with Dr. Thompson’s efforts to develop Systema Dipterorum, many from the community have also contributed to the database. Closure of the database is a slap in the face to all who have taken the time to contribute, and a major setback for dipterists everywhere.
Dr. Thompson has said his decision to close Systema Dipterorum was made by the funding cut, but also because he believes he is being forced out of his emeritus position at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington (where he’s been employed for decades). Regardless, Systema Dipterorum should not be used as a negotiating tool, and restricting access holds the entire Diptera community hostage. Hopefully Dr. Thompson and his colleagues will consider officially making the database the property of the global Dipterology community and not remove it, or threaten to remove it again.
As of February 21, Systema Dipterorum has been placed back online, although there appear to be coding issues, with error messages appearing in place of search results, resulting in the system remaining inoperable. Hopefully these kinks will be worked out quickly, restoring Systema Dipterorum to a fully functional state. I can only imagine that administrative abilities and over-arching control strategies will be reexamined after this incident, and safeguards will likely be enacted to prevent a similar situation from occurring again.
The long term future of Systema Dipterorum is anything but assured however. The continual development of this resource will rely on stable funding being available for not only its basic day to day maintenance, but more importantly the continued job of growing the database through the addition of names and taxonomic information. Perhaps it’s time for the international Diptera community to move from an informal association of like-minded individuals (like those found in the North American Dipterists Society or the Diptera.info community) towards a more formal society, complete with an elected governing board, constitution and devoted, voting membership. We’re not far from such a society; the North American Dipterists Society meets biannually, while an International Congress of Dipterology is held every four years, and dipterists have taken to Facebook and other social media to facilitate communication between formal gatherings. I’m sure that establishing an international society can be a delicate endeavor, but what better time than the present to begin the process, promote international collaboration and encourage prospective dipterists from around the world to become involved in a global initiative? An International Society of Dipterists could then be made stewards of Systema Dipterorum, helping to ensure its continued development by research groups and enthusiastic specialists as a leading mandate for the society.
There have been major strides made by the Diptera community to advance not only our knowledge of fly diversity and taxonomy, but also to advance the profile of taxonomists in general. In an age where taxonomists are becoming endangered species, it’s imperative that we band together and remind funding agencies, universities and governments about the vital role the science of taxonomy plays in all aspects of biology, and encourage these institutions to return to investing in the training, employment and funding of taxonomists, before the Taxonomic Impediment becomes the Taxonomic Impoverishment.
UPDATE March 5, 2012: It seems Systema Dipterorum is fully functional again. Go find taxonomic info while you can people!
Today is my 1 year Twitterversary, making it as good a time as any to share why I think Twitter is one of the most important resources available to scientists, how to make the most of it, and what makes it great for interacting with non-scientists.
Twitter is as simple a social network as you can get, “limited” to text-based updates of 140 characters telling people “What’s Happening” in your life. But as they say, it’s not the size of the tweet that matters, but rather how you use it, and there are roughly 2 million ways in which to interact with the Twitterverse, sharing and finding all manner of relevant content, ideas, and information!
So what makes Twitter the ultimate scientific resource? Networking. If there’s one thing I’ve realized about academia, it’s that what you know is not all that matters when it comes to finding opportunities (although it is extremely important). Many times it also matters who you know, and maybe more importantly, who knows you! Through Twitter I’ve “met” entomologists of all disciplines; apiculturists, IPM consultants, taxonomists, ecologists and physiologists across the spectrum of amateurs, graduate students, post-docs, museum staff or university faculty. But I’ve also interacted with individuals who I would normally never come in contact with, like marine biologists, scientific illustrators, botanists, bioinformaticians, evolutionary biologists, statisticians, microbiologists and many, MANY science writers! Joshua Drew (a marine biology post-doc in Chicago) hit the nail on the head:
Wow, great conversations on science today. Twitter gives me the ability to have really smart and interesting people as officemates
— Joshua Drew (@labroides) December 28, 2011
These people won’t be at the usual conferences I attend, but that doesn’t mean my research isn’t related to theirs. By exposing myself to a wide array of scientists, I have found inspiration to apply to my own projects, methods to experiment with in future, and kindred spirits who are also working their way through the trials of academia and provide invaluable advice. As I move forward, who knows how these individuals may influence my career, with each “tweep” a potential collaborator, advisor or hiring committee member; fortune favours the prepared, and Twitter has allowed me to diversify my knowledge base significantly, better preparing me for future research obstacles.
With over 200 million users posting more than 95 million tweets per day, you may find it daunting to discover tweeters relevant to your field of science. Luckily there are several ways to get the most out of Twitter with minimal time investment. You can easily subscribe to lists of scientist twitter users, or super-tweeters like @BoraZ who share content from a wide variety of scientists (or you can start with who I follow even). It’s important to note that when you follow someone on Twitter, the information being shared is unilateral, meaning you can see what that person posts, but they don’t see what you post (unless they reciprocate and follow you). This means you can tailor the information you receive to only those you find interesting, without getting inundated with updates by all the people who may follow and interact with you.
However, to unlock the real power of Twitter, I recommend exploring the #hashtag. Integrated by Twitter as an automatic search term, hashtags allow you to filter tweets from all 200 million+ users simply and directly. There are a number of interesting and widely adopted science hashtags which may interest you, but you can create, use and follow any hashtag which you consider interesting or relevant (like #Diptera, or #ScienceShare perhaps). There are 2 in particular however which I have found to be the most powerful; #madwriting and #IcanhazPDF.
#madwriting is a rallying call for those that may struggle with writing or dedicating the time to do so. Created to develop a shared sense of community, accountability and encouragement, #madwriting bouts last about 30 minutes, and encourage undistracted writing, followed by a sharing of progress after the time is up. Major portions of my Master’s thesis were accomplished thanks to the #madwriting community, as well as numerous blog posts (including this one).
Although grammatically terrible, #IcanhazPDF is the most useful hashtag for scientists in my opinion. If you or your institution does not have access to a journal, it can be frustrating, time-consuming and difficult to obtain a copy of a paper. Traditionally this obstacle would be overcome using interlibrary loan or contacting authors or other colleagues at different institutions and requesting copies directly. With #IcanhazPDF, the Twitter community has changed the game, crowd-sourcing paper requests from complete strangers across the world. The speed at which you can obtain a paper has now gone from days or weeks to minutes, allowing you to go on with your research & writing without delay. I can personally attest to this system, having made a request last spring and receiving the PDF via email less than 20 minutes later. While no different from making direct requests from colleagues (which has gone on for decades), there is the potential for legal trouble, so be sure to make an informed decision before taking part.
As you can see, there are numerous ways for scientists to benefit from Twitter, but Twitter is also a great way to reach out to the general public and give back. Whether you share tales from your research (or more personal stories that demonstrate that scientists are human too), pass along links to popular science articles or blog posts (or even open-access journal articles), develop citizen science projects, or simply interact with the public by answering questions, it’s easy to give back on Twitter and potentially inspire future generations of scientists. I’ve helped identify insects for people, provided answers on biodiversity, and tried to change people’s opinions about flies in general, all via Twitter. The 140 character limit I mentioned earlier has also forced me to become more concise with my writing, and lead me to change my use of verbose terms common to scientific jargon. I can also see Twitter being incorporated in the classroom, facilitating interactions between students and teachers/professors or being used as extra credit (recording wildlife sightings, extracurricular readings, etc).
While I understand scientists are busy people and may be hesitant to join a(nother) social network, I feel that careful integration of Twitter into a research program can actually increase productivity and innovation. If you’re not already tweeting, I encourage you to give it a chance and explore what you may be missing!You can find me on Twitter @BioInFocus. UPDATE (Jan. 3. 2011, 00:30): @BoraZ sent me a link to another great clearing house of science twitterers, Science Pond. At this time their tweet display algorithm seems to be down, but you can still browse the long list of scientist users on the left hand side.